The government of the United States engages with virtually every country in the world on some level. This can include Congressional and Presidential actions, Justice Department criminal investigations, foreign assistance, public and private financial interactions, US federal contracts executed in other countries, as well as weapons systems sold and delivered. The following tools are designed to help journalists outside the US understand how their countries are impacted. All of these activities are traceable at some level through public-facing databases.
Some of the resources listed have a cost, but most are free. Sometimes journalists ask if it’s legal to look at these sites. Answer: it’s absolutely legal. Stories abound on these websites, so go and use them.
Politics and Money
The US government spent some $38 billion in foreign aid in 2021, supporting development efforts and providing humanitarian relief. The aid can be political, strategic, or economic, and is separate from military spending (we’ll come to that below). Most of the foreign aid actually goes to US (and foreign) contractors who carry out various projects or programs. Congress and the White House have a lot of influence on this spending, but countries also lobby the US to gain support on specific issues. All of this is trackable too.
Question: What is the US government spending money on in my country?
Resource: Foreign Assistance. This database lets you search by country and year, and even allows journalists to download spreadsheets. You can also look up information using these criteria:
- Obligations: Funds Congress has agreed to spend.
- Disbursements: Funds that have actually been spent.
- President’s Budget Requests: Funds the President has asked Congress to approve.
- Appropriated and Planned: Funds Congress has appropriated, a first step toward Obligations.
Question: What are the specific US government contracts in my country?
To navigate the website go to: USA Spending → Award Search → Advanced Search → Fiscal Year → Location COUNTRY → ADD FILTER → Search.
Question: Who in my country is trying to influence US politics and on what issues?
Resource: FARA Efile. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals to make periodic public disclosures. This site allows you to browse these filings by country or location represented to see which nations are involved and which lobbying firms and lobbyists — who are sometimes former US government officials — they have hired.
To navigate the website go to: FARA Efile → Browse Filings → Active Registrants by Country or Location Represented → COUNTRY/LOCATION → View → View Document.
Question: Who is lobbying in the US on behalf of my government or companies in my country, and on what issues?
Resource: Lobbying Disclosure. The Lobbying Disclosure Act sets standards for domestic lobbyists in the US and this database includes registrations and quarterly activity reports for foreign entities and their representatives.
To navigate the website go to: Lobbying Disclosure → Registrations and Quarterly Activity Reports → Foreign Entities → COUNTRY → Search Reports → View.
Question: What US lawmakers have visited my country on political business, why, and when?
Resource: Congress.gov. This site documents official foreign trips by US government agents or members of Congress by country visited.
To navigate the site go to: Congress.gov → Search by Source → Congressional Record → “Official Foreign Travel” and Country Name.
Question: What current US bills under debate could impact my country?
Resource: Congress.gov. This site includes all pending US federal legislation and allows foreign journalists to search the text of these proposed laws for mentions of their country or other relevant terms.
To navigate the website go to: Congress.gov → search COUNTRY → Check Legislation.
Question: What work is the US government planning in my country?
To navigate the website go to: SAM.gov → Search → COUNTRY.
Question: What are the financial assets of US officials working in my country and their spouses (such as ambassadors or USAID directors)?
Resource: Office of Government Ethics. This database includes ethics documents, financial disclosure reports (OGE Form 201), presidential appointee and nominee records, and more based on country.
To navigate the website go to: Office of Government Ethics → Access Ethics Documents → View Officials’ Individual Disclosures → (Click on the banner) → Title → COUNTRY.
Question: What export restrictions and sanctions is the US imposing?
Resource: Consolidated Screening List. This government search engine is part of the US International Trade Administration and allows you to look up via name, country, and source across a number of official cabinet agencies.
Almost anyone entering the US needs to obtain some sort of visa, whether it’s for a short-term tourist stay, work or educational opportunity, or seeking citizenship. The US immigration system is opaque, however, and the federal laws that cover it are outdated. The federal immigration system also has its own courts and detention system completely separate from the US criminal justice system. The US has specific rules and regulations for each country, and they can differ substantially. Investigating the status of immigrants or foreign visitors in the US is very achievable, even if a journalist is unable to come to the US themselves. Here are some tools to help.
Question: How many people from my country are currently in immigration detention in the US, and where are they being held?
Resource: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). This broad database, run by Syracuse University, includes a wealth of information on detentions by citizenship and country.
To navigate the website go to: TRAC → All Immigration Tools → ICE Detainers, Latest Data → Pull down: Citizenship → COUNTRY NAME.
Question: How many people from my country have been ordered deported or allowed to stay in the US through immigration courts this year?
Resource: TRAC Immigration. This subsite of the broader database (mentioned above) focuses on immigration-related issues, which include immigration court decisions and deportations by nationality.
To navigate the website go to: TRAC → Immigration → All Immigration Tools → Immigration Court Decisions Tool → Starting with: Nationalities → COUNTRY NAME.
Question: Where are people from my country working? How do I find out about visas/green cards in the US?
Resource: MyVisaJobs. This site lets you peruse foreigners with US work visas by country of citizenship.
To navigate the website go to: MyVisaJobs → Green Card → Country of Citizenship.
Question: I think someone from my country has been detained by US immigration. How do I find them?
Resource: ICE Locator. This site lets you search for detained migrants using their A-number (alien registration number), country of birth, or biographical information.
The US Department of Defense (DOD) trains and supplies foreign militaries around the world. With some digging at the sites below, it’s possible to see which military units received training in the US, and very specifically what that training was. It’s also possible to find out what weapons systems or nuclear technologies have been sent from the US to another country.
Question: Does my country import or export advanced technologies in trade with the US?
Resource: US Census Advanced Technology Product Data. This sub-site of the US Census covers monthly foreign trade — imports and exports — with the US across a number of specific categories, including nuclear technology.
To navigate the site go to: US Census Advanced Technology Data → (10) Nuclear Technology → Search List for Country Name.
Question: What military training and assets has my country received from the US?
Resource: Foreign Military Training and DOD Engagement Activities of Interest. Note: this data only goes back six years on the DOD website.
Question: How much money has the US spent on military sales and training in/for my country?
Resource: DSCA Historical Facts book and Fiscal Year Series. The Historical Sales Book (HSB) offers a by-country list of US military sales from fiscal years 1950 through 2021.
Question: What are some of the specific weapons systems and support sent from the US to my country?
Resource: Excess Defense Articles Database Tool. This site’s information includes the receiving country, the item or material, the quantity of each, market value, and the method of transfer (sale) of the military equipment.
In today’s world of global commerce, sometimes a journalist can learn about a company in their home country by searching through US records. It’s also possible to look at the tax filings of nonprofits that do work around the globe if they are based in the US, including how much their executives are being paid. Finally, tracking imports and exports is the start of examining labor abuses in your home country, or a Global South nation, and how those practices are linked to products that end up on Western shelves.
Question: Who are the officers and what documents have been filed for a particular company?
Resource: Open Corporates.
Question: What publicly-traded US corporations are investing or operating in my country?
Resource: Securities and Exchange Commission. This database lets you search based on company name and country to find official filings and other information, including full text of these documents going back four years.
To navigate the website: Securities and Exchange Commission → Search for company filings → full text past four years → Country Name.
Question: How do I look at the financial records of a US-based non-governmental organization or nonprofit, including salaries, donations, and spending?
Resource: Candid (GuideStar). The free version of this site allows you to search by the name of the organization and access its IRS Form 990s, which provide detailed financial information on donors/grantees, activity, and pay for staff and directors. Note: there is a time lag in these forms becoming publicly available, so the most recent 990 data could be several years old.
To navigate the website go to: GuideStar → NGO Name → Financial Reporting → Form 990.
Question: What companies in my country export to the US — and what products or goods are they selling?
For more tips and tools on investigating businesses and corporations, check out GIJN’s guide Researching Corporations and Their Owners.
There are many stories to be discovered in US court records, which are largely open and available for free or a small charge. It’s also possible to find cases of people from other countries who are prosecuted in the US. If the foreign nationals are in US custody it’s also possible to exchange emails or schedule a visit.
Question: Who from my country is being federally prosecuted in the United States and why?
Resource: US Department of Justice. On the DOJ site, search through the press releases for mentions of the country in question.
Question: How do I see individual court files?
To navigate PACER go to: Pacer → Find a case → NAME → Docket Report
To navigate Court Listener go to: Recap Archive
Question: How do I write or otherwise arrange an interview with foreign nationals detained in the US?
Resource: Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator. Find the person incarcerated via one of four identification methods (most likely an “INS number” for foreigners) or their full name (age, race, and gender are additional inputs). If you plan on visiting for an interview, contact the warden and fill out a news media form.
To navigate the website go to: Federal Bureau of Prisons → Inmates → Find an inmate → Ask them to fill out the Request for Visitors Form.
These sites are a great resource for stories that take a look at recent diplomatic and foreign policy history and the connection to the US. There may be untold stories here relevant to other countries.
Question: Where are the records of US State Department/CIA activity?
Resources: Access to Archival Databases (AAD). National Archives records are available back to the 1970s. Also, the US State Department’s Virtual Reading Room includes a wealth of foreign policy documents released because of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) maintains a FOIA Reading Room for researching historical links to the US and its conduct overseas.
Martha Mendoza is a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter with the Associated Press. She currently writes breaking news, enterprise, and investigative stories from Silicon Valley, in California. She was part of a team that exposed forced labor in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia in 2015, an exposé that helped to free 2,000 slaves.